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Gruden's nice problem: play or sit
Gruden says he'll go with his best players in final 2 games
By STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Published December 18, 2007
TAMPA - The decisions won't get any easier for Jon Gruden now that the Bucs have clinched a playoff spot.
Next up on the coach's plate: a judgment call over how much to use key players in the regular season's final two games. Given all the team's injuries, many unhealed, Gruden might be tempted to rest some starters.
Will he or won't he?
"We want to win, and to do that you have to play your best players," Gruden said. "There may be some opportunities to look at some backup players, although we've looked at every guy on the roster and then some. We're not going to change much in the next few weeks."
But, "To rest a guy, you better have enough bodies who can go in and perform," he said. "That's the challenge in the NFL in Week 15 and 16. We do have an opportunity here in the next few games to consider looking at some other combinations, get some guys some plays off. But we are still playing for something."
That's a big part of the scenario. The Bucs, the No.4 seed as of now, have a mathematical chance to land the No.3 seed in the NFC playoffs. That would match them against a lower-seeded wildcard team in the first round.
And if top-seeded Dallas and Green Bay were to lose, the third seed could host a potential NFC title game.
But that's a long way off, as is even getting the No.3 seed. The Bucs (9-5) would have to finish a full game ahead of Seattle, meaning the Seahawks (9-5) would need to lose one of their remaining games against struggling Baltimore and Atlanta. Seattle would win a tiebreaker with the Bucs because of its victory over Tampa Bay.
There's one other factor Gruden will have to consider: His players will want to play.
"I think there's going to come a time when Coach might decide to do something like that, especially since we won't have a first-round bye," said quarterback Jeff Garcia, who returned Sunday after a back injury forced a two-game absence. "... But I don't think we want to get away from building momentum."
Asked whether he'd be content to sit out, Garcia deadpanned: "Not necessarily. That would be a bitter pill to swallow."
WEST COAST STORY: It's back to the West Coast when Tampa Bay travels to San Francisco for Sunday's game against the 49ers.
Historically, that means bad news for the Bucs, who haven't won a game out west since a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003 in San Diego. Since then, Tampa Bay has lost six straight on western road trips, losing to the 49ers twice and once each to the Cardinals, Chargers, Raiders and Seahawks.
"We have not played worth a damn on the West Coast," Gruden said. "I don't know what it is. We've looked at the hotels that we've stayed in, (whether) we leave on Friday or Saturday. We have not played well or coached well."
The team will travel to San Francisco on Friday afternoon as it has for its past couple of West Coast trips, theoretically giving players more time to adjust to the three-hour time difference.
THEY'RE NO.1: The Bucs emerged from the weekend in a tie for the league's top scoring defense. Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh are averaging a league-low 15.6 points allowed. The Bucs have allowed 218 points and are on pace to allow the fewest by a Tampa Bay defense since 2002. That team allowed 196, the fewest in franchise history.
INJURY FALLOUT: Gruden mentioned only one injury of note from Sunday. Defensive end Patrick Chukwurah injured a hamstring. The team fears it will keep him out of the lineup for some time.
But Gruden said end Greg Spires, who has been battling a calf injury and was inactive again Sunday, should be ready to go against San Francisco.